Bidding went ballistic at a Sotheby's art sale in Hong Kong just over a year ago. A little-known Filipino artist named Ronald Ventura sold a striking, surrealist-inspired painting entitled Nesting Ground for $280,000, 20 times higher than its presale estimate. The emergence of a new trend in Asian art cannot be inferred from a single sale, but works from other contemporary Philippine artists such as Geraldine Javier, Winner Jumalon and Benedicto Cabrera are being sold with increasing frequency and success at auctions and galleries in Hong Kong, Singapore, London and New York City. Mok Kim Chuan, the head of Southeast Asian art at Sotheby's, calls it a nascent boom with room to run. "It took 20 years for Indonesian art to grow to where it is now in the market," he says. "The Philippines has only just started."
The speed at which contemporary Philippine art has swept across the Asian art world over the past year has outstripped popular knowledge of its fundamentals. What are the enduring influences on the art of this culturally complex country? What are the concerns of its pre-eminent modern artists and how have they arisen? To situate current market excitement within a wider historical framework, the Singapore Art Museum has mediated rivalries between secretive Philippine collectors, and dug into its own archives, to put together a show of 70 rarely seen works spanning more than a century of Philippine art. It is, experts agree, one of the largest and most historically rich exhibitions of Philippine art ever assembled outside the country.
Entitled "Thrice Upon a Time: A Century of Story in the Art of the Philippines," the show hung alongside a separate collection of modernist works on loan from the Ateneo Art Gallery in Manila runs at the Singapore Art Museum until Jan. 31. Underscoring its importance to the Philippines' often battered image abroad, the show was opened by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo herself. In doing so, she was obliged to march briskly past one of the more cheeky exhibits: a bottled collection of pungent smells, including an essence of rotten eggs labeled PHILIPPINE GOVERNMENT.
"Thrice Upon a Time" follows a simple historical chronology. The story begins in the late 19th century, when the scattered archipelago was a Spanish colony, its people stifled by ruling élites but also desperate to earn their approval. The assiduousness with which they sought it can be seen in two iconic works by Filipino artists Juan Luna and Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, who together swept the top prizes at a prestigious Madrid art exposition in 1884. Neither painting bears any trace of indigenous technique; instead they demonstrate the skill with which the Filipinos absorbed the traditions of post-Renaissance Europe and, albeit timidly, began to subvert them.
Luna's dreamy Spain and the Philippines, is painted on a tall and narrow canvas and depicts a European woman in a red gown, her hand proprietarily on the hip of a darker-skinned Filipina as she ushers the latter up a stairway to a pastel-colored horizon. The allegorical meaning of Hidalgo's oil composition The Christian Virgins Being Exposed to the Populace is rather more pointed. Playing masterfully with light and darkness, the painter chooses to depict a scene from ancient Rome wherein naked Christian virgins are being lasciviously peddled by slave traders. "Hidalgo wanted to say that the virgins are actually the Philippines," explains Joyce Toh, an assistant curator at the Singapore Art Museum. "It's an allegory about persecution under the Spanish."
It wasn't until the arrival in the 1920s of Fernando Amorsolo, arguably the country's most famous painter, that Philippine landscapes and figures began to appear more prominently in the archipelago's art. "Amorsolo's project was to find an idealized Philippine landscape and form of female beauty," says Ahmad Mashadi, head of the National University of Singapore's art museum. The artist took his nationalistic mission seriously, often too seriously, dipping his brush deeply in bathos and nostalgia. Amorsolo's paintings were suffused with movement, but they could be earnest to the point of comedy. Though he produced some striking portraits, as well as a haunting landscape of Manila lying in smoky ruins after World War II, pastoral paintings are most common in Amorsolo's prodigious body of work think of rows of smiling women harvesting rice in verdant fields, with a vibrancy unpleasantly reminiscent of the chirpy Technicolor Hollywood musicals that were playing in Manila cinema halls during his lifetime. Not surprisingly, "a lot of [modern] artists felt Amorsolo's work was too romanticized and they rejected it," says Toh.
By the time Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos came to power in the Philippines in the mid- to late 1960s, Amorsolo's influence over neorealist painters like Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Jose Joya and Fernando Zóbel had been virtually obliterated. Drawing inspiration instead from American artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, the cool mathematical lines of Zóbel fitted surprisingly well into the Marcoses' own propagandistic aims. According to Ramon Lerma, director of Manila's Ateneo Art Gallery, the Marcos regime was preoccupied with modernity. "They wanted to present the Philippines as keeping up with the rest of the world," he says.
Indeed, it wasn't until the overthrow of Marcos in the mid-1980s that artists were freed of the burden of representing the Philippines. "After Marcos left, the scene exploded and became plural," says Toh. Ranging from the dark paintings of Javier, whose lonely ash-gray landscapes owe as much to film noir as to Manila's inescapable haze, to the surrealism of Ventura, Philippine art has finally become, as Mashadi puts it, "post-ideological." And it is this mature quality that has caught the attention of the Asian art market. Philippine artists today have scattered in their own interesting directions. The achievement of Thrice Upon a Time is showing how they got there.